Molly Smith announces her exit after 25 years at the helm of Arena Stage

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Molly Smith, who led Arena Stage for nearly a quarter-century as an American Plays champion and the force behind a sparkling transformation of her southwest Washington resort, announced Friday that she will step down in July. 2023.

Her departure marks a rare change in the artistic direction of one of the nation’s most important nonprofit theaters, a company born by the revered Zelda Fichandler along with two others at the dawn of America’s regional theater movement in the early 1980s. 1950. In 72 years, only three people, Fichandler, Douglas C. Wager and Smith, provided artistic direction, a remarkable record of stability that allowed Arena to maintain its status as a versatile player on the national scene. During Smith’s years at the helm, Arena could spawn a play about conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and a Broadway hit such as “Dear Evan Hansen.”

“As I entered my 25th birthday, the question kept coming to mind: is this the right time to retire?” Smith, 70, said in a Zoom interview. “There are so many things I want to do in my life, and I have all this vitality to do it. Being at the Arena for 25 years, there’s an elegance to that.

“And also the fact that so many things I wanted to do, I was able to do them. I wanted to build the new center. I wanted to bring in tons of writers. I wanted to bring a diversity of voices. I wanted to change the audience base. And we managed to do it. Among his plans: to travel widely and perhaps, at some point, direct again. Her last show as Artistic Director of Arena was the recent revival of the musical “Catch Me If You Can.” (His first show was a September 1998 cover of Tennessee Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”.)

Smith’s decision has shaken many who have come to regard her as a fixture in the Washington theater community. “It was a shock in a way, because we have such a good partnership,” said Edgar Dobie, executive director of Arena, who has worked with it for a dozen years. “I think Molly has gotten the point, and she has so much to highlight, in terms of legacy and real-life accomplishments. And as you know, she’s also an adventurer.

Arena board chairman Decker Anstrom said he and Smith agreed the word for his departure was “bittersweet”. “I think what’s perhaps not understood is the relationship she’s built between Arena and the broader arts community,” Anstrom said. “I’m always amazed at the playwrights it attracts, the actors it can attract. I hope this legacy will be passed on to the next leader.

The search for Smith’s successor will begin next month, Anstrom added, in a process he hopes will allow a new creative director to be appointed and installed before Smith’s departure in just over a year. year. This length of preparatory track is essential today. The word in theater circles is that growing pressures in business – on financial resources, compensation for artistic workers, political sensitivities and attention to racial and gender inequalities – have made leadership positions less attractive to some experienced candidates. (Even though the salary of art directors of Smith’s status can reach six figures; in 2018, his compensation was $424,000, according to tax records.)

Smith, who ran a theater company in Juneau, Alaska, for 19 years before coming to Arena in 1998, is the doyen of artistic directors among DC’s frontline theater companies, and one of the most old of all, big or small. As much as any Washington theater director in recent memory, she has put her own signature on her theater, leaving with a reputation for interweaving Arena’s identity more deeply with that of the nation’s capital. His appetite for American plays on political themes, his desire to find works that speak to diverse audiences in the city, will be aspects of his legacy. It’s no small sign of the bond Smith forged with official Washington that the late Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court, Ruth Bader Ginsburg – a devoted patron of the Arena – presided over Smith’s wedding in 2014 with Suzanne Blue Star Boy.

“It’s an important moment to be able to pass the baton to someone else, who also has a pioneering spirit and who was really interested in continuing to innovate and bring change and put their own distinctive mark on the organization,” Smith said.

The most concrete of its achievements involves real concrete: the stunning $135 million renovation of the Arena home on the southwest waterfront in 2010. Together with architect Bing Thom, Smith oversaw the grounds for Arena’s two existing theaters, the Fichandler Stage and Kreeger Theatre, and a new third theatre, the Cradle, all under a 45-foot high glass skin. Renamed the Mead Center for American Theater, the redevelopment took a decade to come to fruition and was made possible by an initial $35 million gift from late philanthropists Gilbert and Jaylee Mead.

“We started with 80,000 square feet,” Smith said of the preexisting campus on Maine Avenue SW and Sixth Street SW. “We now have 200,000 square feet. And without the transformational gift of Gil and Jaylee, we couldn’t have done it.

During the renovation, Arena Stage moved to temporary digs in Crystal City and the Lincoln Theater on U Street NW. When the resort reopened in the Southwest in the fall of 2010, Smith opened it with an enchanting cover of “Oklahoma!” by Rodgers and Hammerstein. It was, in a sense, a bold choice, starting a new era under an ultra-modern shell with a fundamental American musical. Although Smith didn’t discover her love of musicals until after she arrived at Arena, the selection was consistent with the mission she had envisioned for Arena, as a platform for American work. And by casting a black actress, Eleasha Gamble, as Laurey and a Latino actor, Nicholas Rodriguez, as Curly in “Oklahoma!” Smith foreshadowed a national movement that would open more roles to artists of color.

“I started thinking, ‘Okay, people don’t talk about Rodgers and Hammerstein the way they talk about Eugene O’Neill; I’m going to start doing that,” she recalls.

Her interest in new American drama led her in 2016 to announce her Power Plays initiative: 25 original plays and musicals – one for each decade of America’s history – to order over 10 years. Some of these pieces, such as Lawrence Wright’s “Camp David” and Aaron Posner’s “JQA” about John Quincy Adams, were subsequently produced elsewhere. A wide range of playwrights, including Katori Hall, Mary Kathryn Nagle, and Karen Zacarías, received key nudges from Smith and Arena.

Not all of Arena’s productions have been hugely successful, of course, but Smith has occasionally found rewards simply by slipping an idea into the public’s consciousness, as she thought she accomplished with Nagle’s 2018 “Sovereignty.” , about America’s controversial history with Native tribal rights.

“One thing I loved about ‘Sovereignty’ was how many people stopped me afterwards and said, ‘I feel so ignorant about Native Americans,'” Smith said. “Or someone who would call me later and be like, ‘Look, I Googled some stuff that was in the room, and I suddenly realized it was true, and I’m shocked and I gotta start reading more. So I felt like it was a quiet revolution.

It will be up to his successor to ensure that the revolution continues.


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